Fife-born Kenny Anderson (King Creosote) and London-born producer Jon Hopkins were nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2011. Both considered it a surprise, perhaps even a distraction to their modest work in studios, producing (Hopkins) and running a small label (Anderson). And despite the Mercury nomination, their success has still been local. The album has gained recognition across the UK, charting and receiving favourable reviews in music magazines and national newspapers, but one can barely find an international reception. Neither is this a surprise. The success as well as the sound of the album is humble. Diamond Mine offers electronic-infused folk, but not overtly like the artists under the ‘folktronica’ moniker such as Tunng. Hopkins has done a deft job at tenderly piecing his signature sound on top of Anderson’s. Not once does he attempt to enhance it through coarse transformation- instead he rediscovers Anderson’s vocals and compositions to create an interpretation that is quite sublime.
Chillwave is back! Had it gone? Well, yes, it had been fading. That laidback summer of 2009, radio on, Memory Tapes and Washed Out promulgating. Toro Y Moi’s and Neon Indian’s 2010 releases gave the Chillwave ‘movement’ legs to stand on but 2011 stuttered. Memory Tapes’ second album was an ordinary effort that lacked the playfulness of his first. Toro Y Moi’s second album in two years was noteworthy but hasn’t made enough of an impact to be included in this list. But step up Ernest Greene (Washed Out)- following his excellent EP Life of Leisure, 6 tracks of golden 80s synth (which he toured with, despite the average length of the song barely making three minutes), he required to make an impact in a musical genre that could easily be one of NME’s oversized-shirted and chunky-jewelled episodic fads. This album is on the chilled side of Chillwave. No storming dance floor tracks like ‘You’ll See It’ from the EP to be found here- instead, the title track is soft-pedalled and patient and the rest are persistent rather than instantly gratifying. All the better for it if Chillwave is to be taken seriously.
A lot of critics have made justified nods to The Beach Boys, but what do they expect, it’s the West Coast and this band is the West Coast at its purest. Other comparisons have been made between lead singer Christopher Owens and Elliot Smith, again justified, but that charge is a popular one too, I feel the same could be said of Thurston Moore’s excellent album, one that didn’t quite make my top ten. Equally, ‘Die’ could be ripped straight from a Led Zeppelin album. In fact, the album is full of borrowed and used ideas, which could be deemed pastiche. Something that Deerhunter’s brilliant album of 2010 did, but just like Deerhunter, Girls have produced an album that somehow transcends imitation and have instead given us authentic odes.
I visited Philadelphia in December and while there I asked a barman who is hot right now in Philly, without hesitation he answered ‘The War on Drugs’. The band is worshipped in their native Philadelphia and they aren’t doing too badly elsewhere. This is the band’s second album, but with changes in personnel occurring so frequently (Kurt Vile was a former member), this might as well be the band’s first album. They list their influences as Springsteen and Dylan and borrow a lot from Dylan in the sense that this album is not the most polished- the recording of ‘Brothers’ was done in one take, no splicing and minimal tinkering. The Americana vibe is constant throughout, with touches of Arcade Fire at times. But what is different is the textured ambience that permeates the record like moments’ reflections.
Where do I start. Dan Bejar is sexy. I say that as a heterosexual male. No other songwriter in my lifetime has enraptured me as much as Destroyer. Kaputt is the painfully-shy Canadian’s tenth solo album yet I am sure many will have not come across him. He hails from Vancouver and often collaborates with other Canadian musical Supreme Beings in Swan Lake and The New Pornographers. Of course, this album is a departure from everything else he has ever created; all ten are. It’s a hard album to condense into 170 words, I guess the best I could do is to declare that I will be playing ‘Suicide Demo for Kara Walker’ when I make love to my wife on my wedding night. So, you’re probably wondering why it’s not my favourite album of the year. Well, it’s just if you compare this album to his back catalogue; it just makes my top three. It’s an exceptional album, dirtied only by the knowledge that he has done and probably will do better.
The most difficult thing about including Merill Garbus’ second album in this year’s top ten is to write her stage name and the name of her second album. The ‘i’ in ‘W h o k i l l’ unintelligently capitalises itself, as does the ‘t’ in ‘tUnE-yArDs’, and as for the capitalised letters… This may give off the impression that the album was written by a minor, and on first glance it is easy to dismiss as juvenile, but boy is there more to it. It’s an album that will make you dizzy. Jazz, afrobeat, rock and many other styles clash, somehow, in harmony. The perfect example of this is in ‘Gangsta’, which weaves Garbus’ aggressive vocals with that stylistic ADHD. Garbus’ vocals are equally versatile; she whispers as much as she roars.
There wasn’t one female lead vocalist on my list last year, but how things change. This will be the second of three. She is also the second person to be involved with The New Pornographers, and the last (bad news for Beirut fans). Annie Clark, once of The Polyphonic Spree, has an obsession with the death of Dylan Thomas, she has named herself after the place of his death. She also names the first track of the album after an Eric Rohmer film- beauty and erudition is never a bad mix and she and her album encapsulates that. Her music has something of the Dirty Projectors about her, except it lets you in to places where the New Yorkers will not; despite all the cultured references her music can be as accessible as that of the billboard pop star and yet at the same time, hugely experimental. It’s that combination which contains the intelligence.
The inimitable Tom Waits just keeps on surprising. This was my most anticipated album of the year and I was nervous because of the chance that Waits, in the year he entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum, might not quite be up to it. But he stamped that idea out like the last cigarette of the night. On Bad As Me, his voice remains as sharp as it did on Blue Valentine or Closing Time, if anything he is a singer who has grown into his voice, becoming more comfortable and adroit with it- somehow the whisky has preserved the trademark growl. Tom Waits has always had the battle-scarred voice of a veteran, and now a sexagenarian, he has the experience alongside it. Especially, in songs like ‘Kiss Me’ and ‘Last Leaf’, one hears the ache of a wild young man in an elderly body.
For a debut album this is appallingly good. The album sounds like a bassist’s wet dream. It has a base of off-kilter funk with lashings of Flaming Lips and Ariel Pink psychedelica. Essentially, it’s what Tame Impala’s InnerSpeaker almost was. It’s a snip at 30 minutes in length, but this is its strength. Many of the songs fade to nothing so that you feel like you’re hearing a glimpse of something more, as if you are wandering by a jam session in a garage. ‘Ffunny Friends’ is jaw-droppingly unskippable. The freedom of the bass in ‘How Can U Luv Me’ will send you into spasms. In short, one listen and you’ll be hooked.
This album has caught many by surprise. Released at the end of November it hasn’t had much of a chance to make an impact. And a Kate Bush record isn’t instantly accessible. Album number ten for Bush and no let-up in quality. It features just seven methodically-composed tracks, each a story into themselves- all with a winter theme. ‘Lake Tahoe’, for example, tells the story of the ghost of a woman wearing Victorian dress who calls after her dog, and ‘Misty’ of lovers who, by morning, melt in her hands like snowmen. The composition on 50 Words for Snow is, at times, like a Thomas Newman score. In fact, this composition is rather akin to a soundtrack, sparsely assisting the vocals and the narrative but not ever quite working with them as one. It’s the Synecdoche, New York of music- an album with a story and then a soundtrack of that story: ultimately, itself.
Happy listening in 2012.